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The atheist anthropologist
Believers and non‐believers in anthropological fieldwork1
Ruy Llera Blanes
The optimistic utopia
Sacrifice and expectations of political transformation in the Angolan Revolutionary Movement
Ruy Llera Blanes
In this paper, I propose an anthropological discussion of the correlation of utopia and optimism, in relation with ideas of personal and collective sacrifice. To do so, I will invoke my ethnographic research on political activism in Angola, particularly the so‐called Revolutionary Movement – a group of young activists challenging Angola’s authoritarian regime. During recent Luanda fieldwork, I observed how most of the ‘Revús’ engaged in self‐sacrificial behaviour, exposing themselves to police brutality, imprisonment and social discrimination, in their struggle towards a brighter collective future. This optimistic and somewhat Gandhian stance marks a dramatic departure from the sense of fatalism and ‘culture of fear’ that seems otherwise to prevail in Angola. I will question if and in what terms such stances are ‘utopian’ and configure ‘principles of hope’, as Ernst Bloch would put it. In the process, I will perform a critical interrogation of the correlation of utopia, hope and optimism.
Ruy Llera Blanes
In this article, through a set of ethnographic vignettes from fieldwork conducted in Angola since 2015, I discuss the political semantics of crisis and austerity, and simultaneously outline an itinerary of a “traveling austerity” between Portugal and Angola, exposing the interconnectedness and mutual binding of both political and economic contexts. Invoking stories of migrant workers in Luanda and the work of local “financial activists” protesting against financial inequality in Angola, I question the relevance of national-based approaches to austerity politics, explore conceptualizations of austerity beyond its “original,” mainstream Eurocentric setting, and argue towards the necessity of analyzing transnational intersections in the study of austerity.
Ends and Beginnings
Ruy Blanes and Simon Coleman
The fact that you are reading these lines indicates that (1) issue number 4 of Advances in Research: Religion and Society has been published; and that (2) the world did not end, as expected by some, in December 2012. The buzz surrounding the Mayan calendar seemed for us as editors to be an appropriate pretext to conjure a debate concerning the intersection of religion and environmental apocalypticism. The four contributions to this debate reflect, in a critical and engaged fashion, on such intersections and their mediatization. Anna Fedele takes the Mayan calendar controversy as a starting point to argue for a history of apocalyptic prophecies in Western New Age and spiritual movements, in which prophetic success or failure have not depended on empirical confirmations. Terry Leahy draws on his research in Newcastle, Australia, to explain that apocalypticism is not exclusive to religious movements, and in fact circulates in different scientific and political spheres. Stefan Skrimshire also pursues this argument, moving beyond the caricature-filled debates between so-called latter-day prophets who campaign on environmental issues and the political orientations of environmental skeptics, and using this approach to decouple apocalypticism and prophecy. Peter Rudiak-Gould, in turn, explores cataclysmic apocalypse narratives in the context of wider expectations of moral and political change, both within and beyond the religious discourse of sin and repentance. All contributions in this section portray logics and contexts of environmental apocalypticism in sketches that overlap but also exceed religious spheres.
Ruy Llera Blanes
In this article I explore the contemporary relevance of Émile Durkheim's classic theory of anomie with respect to both the discipline of social anthropology and the study of politics in Africa. I take as a case study present-day, post-war Angola, where an activist mobilisation (the Revolutionary Movement) has engaged in what I call ‘anomic diagnostics’ in opposing the country's current regime. Through a political reading of Durkheim's theory, I suggest that, while the French author situates anomie and suicide as cause and consequence respectively within a conservative view of society, Angolan activists instead see anomie as the starting point for a progressive political proposition productive of rupture.
Authority, Aesthetics, and the Wisdom of Foolishness
Simon Coleman and Ruy Llera Blanes
With characteristic playfulness, the subject of this volume’s portrait, Gananath Obeyesekere, calls his contribution a celebration of ‘foolishness’. But this is indeed a fertile foolishness. It implies not only an admission that the ethnographer lacks omniscience, but also a positive freedom to engage passionately in comparison, to avoid disciplinary overspecialization, to understand that the “non-rational is not necessarily irrational,” and to acknowledge the power of art and literature as potential inspirations for our work. Of course, as Obeyesekere admits, the ludic and the ironic also entail risks, as they can provoke anger in others. Nonetheless, his words have many echoes in this volume, particularly in their invocation of the power of the aesthetic combined with the ironic, exemplified by reference to the fool in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. They also provoke thoughtful reflections from our three commentators on Obeyesekere’s work, Douglas Hollan, Luís Quintais, and Unni Wikan.
Ruy Llera Blanes and Abel Paxe
In this article we chart the histories and political translations of atheist cultures in Angola. We explore the specific translations of atheist ideologies into practical actions that occurred in the post-independence period in the 1970s–1980s and perform an ethnographic exploration of their legacies in contemporary Angola. We also debate the problem of atheism as an anthropological concept, examining the interfaces between ideology, political agency, and social praxis. We suggest that atheism is inherently a politically biased concept, a product of the local histories and intellectual traditions that shape it.
Godless People, Doubt, and Atheism
Ruy Llera Blanes and Galina Oustinova-Stjepanovic
In the introduction to this special issue, we set the agenda for researching the aspirations and practices of godless people who seek to thin out religion in their daily lives. We reflect on why processes of disengagement from religion have not been adequately researched in anthropology. Locating this issue's articles in the anthropological literature on doubt and atheism, we argue for the importance of a comparative investigation to analyze people's reluctance to pursue religion.